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How Film Restoration Preserves Access to Classic Cinema

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Tim Lanza, vice president and archivist for Cohen Film Collection, recalls a time when the company was working with the British Film Institute on a restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's 1939 film "Jamaica Inn." "In the original negative, there's a hole that is punched into one of the frames. It's a close-up of Charles Laughton's face, so, that frame, it's completely missing the center of his face," he said on a recent phone call. "Now, there really wasn't much that you could do photochemically with that if you're just working from the original negative. I guess you could find a print or another film element and try to use that, but, digitally, what you can do is sort of sample from the frame before that frame and the frame after to create, basically, a composite and it's seamless."

Cohen Film Collection boasts a bounty of cinema classics, from silent flicks starring the likes of Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks to late 20th century classics from Merchant Ivory. They've worked with institutions like the Library of Congress, British Film Institute and UCLA. Lanza himself is a member of the National Film Preservation board, which suggests movies for possible entrance in the National Film Registry and promotes awareness of film preservation. A substantial part of their work at Cohen Film Collection is using modern, digital technology to restore the past.

Film lovers know just how easy it is to lose chunks of the medium's history. Take the dearth of known, existing material from the silent era as an example. "About 80 percent of all silent output is either completely missing or is only available in incomplete versions," says Lanza. "There are about 20-25 percent that are still with us, which is one of the reasons why preservation is so important."

In order to preserve what exists, the films often have to be restored as well and that can be a complicated process. To illustrate, Lanza used as an example a project where Cohen Film Collection work with Italy's Cineteca Bologna on restoring Buster Keaton films. "I supply to them the negatives and fine grains, which is one generation from a negative," he explains. "Some of them are nitrate from the Library of Congress. Some of them are safety from what I oversee here." Beyond that, they'll begin a search for other copies. They'll check with the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). Lanza might check in with collectors who could have necessary material.

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From there, the material is evaluated and the best elements are selected for use in the restoration process. "That might be the original nitrate camera negative, which we were fortunate enough to have on the Buster Keaton film ‘The General.’ Or it might be a number of negatives and fine grains and prints," says Lanza. "It could be very straight forward, you use one element and it's pristine and beautiful. It could be that you're cobbling together a number of different elements, with the best sections of those elements, to recreate the entire film."

The finished product, ultimately, is dependent on the condition of the existing footage. "You are at the mercy of the quality of the surviving elements," says Lanza. "Sometimes, you can digitally correct for that. Sometimes, the results are maybe not as pristine as when it was originally released."

While this kind of work may immediately conjure images of restoration experts piecing together the remains of early silent films or preserving the history of Hollywood's Golden Age, some projects involve films that aren't that old. Take, for example, the company's work on Merchant Ivory films. "If we're lucky enough and there is a surviving cinematographer or director that we can work with, that certainly helps," says Lanza. In the case of the 1987 film “Maurice,” they were able to work with both director James Ivory and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme on the restoration.

Cohen Media's 2K restoration of the 1964 adventure "That Man From Rio" was supervised by cinematographer Pierre Lhomme.

Cohen Film Classics also worked on a restoration of "Between the Lines," a 1977 film about an alternative newspaper directed by Joan Micklin SIlver. "Having her available, she can look at the final piece," says Lanza.

There are a lot of factors that go into deciding which films will be restored, like historical and cultural significance. Lanza points out too that, sometimes, films or directors experience a resurgence in popularity and that can trigger a restoration project as well.

Lanza has a wish list of restoration projects as well. In the Cohen Film Collection library, there are films featuring silent film stars Norma and Constance Talmadge. "We've done a little bit of work in the past with some of those films and there are many, many more of theirs that I would like to get to at some point and make those available again," says Lanza. "Some of them are missing a reel. However, something that may be missing now, who knows? There are things being found all the time."

Ultimately, restoration and preservation serves a bigger purpose and that's getting historic works back into the public consciousness. While this includes screenings in theaters and at festivals, home entertainment is central to the mission at Cohen Film Collection. "It's certainly easier to sit home and watch something streaming," says Lanza, "so what we want to do is provide the best quality, high definition versions of our films, to streaming platforms. Digital makes that possible." DVD and Blu-Ray are important for the company too. "For the kind of films that we distribute, that physical home video format is still viable," he says.

"Preservation is just one component, and restoration, but the other component is access," says Lanza. "If you're preserving something, you should also be looking at making it available."

 

Top image: Still from "Jamaica Inn"

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